If you google how to be happy, you can actually find some pretty good advice. Most of it, unsurprisingly, is written in the imperative. But when has simply telling people what to do resulted in them following through — especially when the tasks are complicated or abstract? Just do it. We’re talking about happiness here — if it was as simple as just committing to a decision, don’t you think we’d have done it? Do you really think we’re not happy simply because we don’t know what makes us happy, that our lives will be fixed as soon as we stumble across some advice?
No, something is clearly missing between reading a sentence like treat your body well, understanding its merit, and actually treating your body well. We all know we should eat well, exercise and get enough sleep. So why don’t we do it? It’s easy to say we’re not really committed to our health, but commitment alone doesn’t make us healthy any more than it prevents adultery.
Commitment is not the mother of change, action is. But how do we achieve action without commitment? I stumbled onto an answer while I was on vacation in Costa Rica. In hindsight it should have come to me sooner, because it closely mirrors the way I envision social change, but I suppose I had to experience it in order to understand. This is what I wrote on 8/9/14 at Cabinas Palmer in Cahuita:
Given the choice, at home, in a structure that rewards idleness & entertainment, I make unhelpful choices. Here, on vacation, I am still me no different than I was five days ago before we left, but the structure of each day rewards different behaviors. Reading and contemplation are more valuable here with the time on buses and the quiet time at the end of the day and so I do those things. Additionally, certain things are simply prohibited because there are no computers, no video games, fewer distractions. Certainly there’s something to be said about that — the hard limits of what is & isn’t even possible — because it’s not like I’m choosing reading over video games. I’m choosing reading over napping or staring out the window. There’s a lesson here that is like a microcosm for the social change I’d like to see: structure your life to reward/encourage good things. Decide to create a hospitable structure for the things you want to do rather than simply deciding to do them.
And that is how to trick yourself into happiness: don’t decide to do the things that make you happy, instead simply structure your day in a way that encourages you to do them.
I’ve already implemented this in one crucial way since my return from Costa Rica and it proves a useful example. Reading makes me happy and driving in Chicago makes me angry. Yet, previously, I drove every day and read very little. Upon my return, I bought a monthly Ventra pass. Now I take the train to work and always bring a book with me. I read every day and drive very little.
I’m happier and it’s not because I made a commitment to change. I had made many commitments prior to Costa Rica — even the 5th line of my electronic 2014 New Year’s Resolutions says modestly, Read 12 books. Ah, the imperative again. From January to August I didn’t finish a single novel. In two weeks in Costa Rica, I read five. I repeat: commitment is not the mother of change, action is.
My lone example isn’t enough, though, so let’s brainstorm. What do you want to change and how can you structure your day to encourage that behavior?